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Why Mercury Still Poses Significant Health Threats


By svocal02Published 12 months ago 4 min read
Why Mercury Still Poses Significant Health Threats
Photo by Jadon Calvert on Unsplash

In July, a 47-year-old woman presented to the emergency room of a local hospital in Sacramento, California. She had speech difficulties, could not walk, and could not feel her hands or face. The patient fell into a coma for several weeks.

The cause of this woman's serious condition, which health authorities quickly discovered, was a skin-lightening ingredient, mercury, which had been illegally added to her face cream.

"Mercury poisoning has dangerous and sometimes irreversible effects, and although unborn children are the most vulnerable to it, anyone can suffer from it," said Claudia ten Have, senior policy coordination officer at the Secretariat of the Minamata Convention. As the case of this woman from Sacramento clearly shows, this toxic heavy metal can pose a serious health threat in both developing and developed countries.

Indeed, everyone on the planet is exposed to mercury at some level, whether through the food we eat, the air we breathe, or the cosmetics we use. While there are a number of steps individuals, businesses and governments can take to guard against mercury poisoning, this toxic heavy metal will continue to endanger human and environmental health until we were able to completely tackle mercury throughout its life cycle.

Achieving this goal is the primary objective of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a multilateral environmental agreement that entered into force in August 2017. To date, 114 countries have ratified the convention, which is the youngest environmental treaty in the world. world. The Parties to the Convention will meet in Geneva for their third Conference of the Parties from November 25 to 29, 2019. The health effects of mercury are one of the important items on the agenda of the meeting. When we inhale, ingest, or are exposed to mercury, this element can attack our central and peripheral nervous system, as well as our digestive tract, immune system, lungs, and kidneys. Symptoms can include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, headaches, muscle weakness and, in extreme cases, death. Fetuses born to mothers with high levels of mercury in their blood can be born with brain damage and hearing and vision problems. Concentrations of the toxic element can be measured in blood, hair or urine samples (report in English).

How are we exposed to mercury? Despite growing global awareness of how mercury threatens our health, this element is still present in our environment. Here are some examples of where it can be found:

dental amalgam

For more than a century, mercury has been a primary ingredient in dental amalgam, the mixture dentists use to seal their patients' cavities. Although the amalgam probably poses only a minimal threat to the health of those who have been treated with this amalgam in the mouth, the use of mercury in the amalgam contributes to the gradual accumulation of the element toxic in our environment. To address this challenge, the Minamata Convention proposes nine specific steps to “phasely reduce the use of mercury-based dental amalgams worldwide. These steps include setting national targets to reduce the use of mercury-based dental amalgams. containing mercury, promoting the use of mercury-free alternatives, and supporting best practices in mercury waste management.

Fish consumption

Seafood is the main source of protein for around one billion people around the world. Since mercury accumulates in the food chain, larger fish such as shark, swordfish, tuna and marlin tend to have particularly high levels of mercury. People who eat very large amounts of seafood can be exposed to high levels of methyl mercury, an organic compound that accumulates in the body of fish. Mercury poisoning caused by the consumption of marine animals has been observed among indigenous groups in many parts of the world, particularly in the Arctic. Per capita seafood consumption in these communities can be up to 15 times higher than in non-Aboriginal groups. A study published in 2018 found high levels of mercury in women of childbearing age in island states in the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Oceans, where fish consumption is high. Clearly, mercury pollution has accumulated in major oceans around the world, contaminating the marine food chain and threatening human health.


Mercury is also present in beauty products, especially lightening creams, but also makeup and eye cleansers. While many countries have imposed laws banning mercury in cosmetics, a number of others have yet to do so, and mercury-contaminated products have been found at major online retailers. Consumers looking to avoid the toxic element should purchase products from reputable vendors and ensure that their products are properly sealed and labeled. The World Health Organization has more information on this.

Small scale mining

Artisanal and small-scale gold miners regularly use mercury to help them separate gold from other materials, and most of this mercury ends up in the environment. In 2015, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Global Mercury Assessment 2018, artisanal and small-scale mining emitted some 800 tones of mercury into the atmosphere, or about 38% of the global total, and also released some 1,200 tones of mercury to soil and water. Mercury poisoning also poses a serious and direct threat to the health of the 12 to 15 million people who work in this sector worldwide. Reducing mercury emissions and releases from mining is a key objective of the Minamata Convention, which requires countries that operate small-scale gold mines to produce national action plans to reduce or eliminate mercury from the sector.

coal burning

The other major source of anthropogenic mercury emissions, which is also an important


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